William Appleman Williams (1921-1990) was dean of the New Left School of American diplomatic history. As one of the most influential American historians in the ’60s and ’70s, he gained a national audience for his anti-war, anti-globalist, and anti-imperial views. Odd as it might seem, it would be more likely these days that Patrick Buchanan would embrace Williams’ views, while today’s left would have little idea who he was.
Williams’ arguments were gradually adopted by libertarians such as Murray Rothbard, and by a number of anti-war conservatives, beginning around 1961. Williams’ central theme was the American Empire, which he rejected as unnecessary and bad for our country and the world. That earned him a reputation as a controversial scholar.
As an enemy of imperialism, Williams advocated decentralization and local self-government—stuff that naturally resonates more with the right these days than a left committed to futile moral crusades and crazed abstractions. Even Williams’ “socialism” was meant to be local and practical, owing more to Midwestern populism than to Marx.
Williams grew up in Atlantic, Iowa, and attended Kemper Military School in Missouri. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, he served in the Pacific theater during World War II. A painful back injury would see him discharged from the military, and he went on to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees in history.
After teaching for five years at the University of Oregon, Williams received an offer to return to Madison as a faculty member in 1957. There he would reach the height of his career as a prominent member of the “Wisconsin School” of diplomatic history, which holds that the engine of United States foreign policy is the desire for increased markets abroad.
above: cover for William Appleman Williams’ book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy
Two years later, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), perhaps Williams’ most famous work, was published. A shocking affront to Cold War consensus, it incurred a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee for the manuscript of his next book, The Contours of American History (1961). On the advice of former Assistant Attorney General Thurman Arnold, Williams appeared before the committee, which left him alone thereafter. But that didn’t stop the IRS from hounding him for nearly two decades.
Williams’ Tragedy elucidated his “Open Door Interpretation” of economic imperialism as an idea and practice. From the 1880s to 1898, he argued, American policymakers and capitalists began to crave extensive foreign markets for surplus goods and capital to substitute for the vanishing land frontier which had previously guaranteed American freedom and prosperity. American diplomacy, threats, and might would force those doors open.
This largely informal, “anti-colonial” form of empire defined prosperity as having foreigners open to free trade. Such a posture promised peace but risked war. The year 1898 was the Open Door policy’s coming-out party. The markets of Asia—especially China—beckoned, and more wars would come.
The Open Door effectively became an ideology from the 1920s and it was relatively successful, on its own terms, down to 1941. Its interwar opponents were discredited as “isolationists.” Fear of being called an isolationist, Williams wrote, had “crippled American thought about foreign policy for 50 years.”
He later developed a fuller, imaginative, and intuitive account of our history in Contours, with some thoughtful forays into American literature. Focusing on the Weltanschauung, or reigning outlook of a given historical period, Williams divided American history into the three broad “ages:” Mercantilism, Laissez-Faire, and Corporation Capitalism. All three periods involved empire and expansion, but the latter two phases largely abandoned any idea of a common good attainable by systemic regulation, something characteristic of British and American mercantilism as expounded by the Earl of Shaftesbury, Jonathan Edwards, John Quincy Adams, and others.
Under laissez-faire, governments established no common goals, but supplied a complex legal framework and built infrastructure. Alas, their rules favored corporations, especially after 1865, thus moving America into a third era defined by a “new gentry composed of economic giants and professional politicians.” Soon enough, the stresses associated with corporate capitalism spurred attempts to steady the system, resulting in “corporate syndicalism,” the combined product of Progressivism and the New Deal.
Contours abounds in surprising insights and evaluations. Impressed by some New England traditions, Williams still faulted the original Puritans’ habit of externalizing evil and scorned the shallow individualism of Abolitionists and Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His rejection of laissez-faire individualism applied everywhere, as shown in his treatment of Jefferson, John Taylor of Caroline, and the Jacksonians.
above: cover for William Appleman Williams’ book The Roots of the Modern American Empire
In 1968, Williams left Madison for Oregon State, where he taught until 1988, and he served as president of the Organization of American Historians. His later works included The Roots of the Modern American Empire (1969), a remarkable tome that connects American military adventures in the late 19th century, and ultimately the Open Door Empire, partly to the expansionary ethos of the American farmer. America Confronts a Revolutionary World (1976) and Empire as a Way of Life (1980) followed, both aimed at a broad audience. Between them came a textbook: Americans in a Changing World (1978). His focus on the centrality of empire to foreign and domestic ideology has proven remarkably prescient in the age of the War on Terror.
Midwestern life and traditions—a kind of decentralized prairie populism—as contrasted against the business of empire, remained a constant theme of Williams’ work. He wrote that “self-determination actually leads, if followed rigorously, to pacifism, and to anarchism practiced within small communities”; hence, his positive evaluation of the Articles of Confederation.
Williams never demonized the South and sometimes hoped for an autonomous Pacific Northwest Republic. He dove deep into the layered causes of restless American expansion, first overland, then overseas, leading finally, to galloping domestic statism and institutional blowback.
As a patriot, Williams viewed the imperial state apparatus as an enemy to all. His Americanism was cultural; its focus was local and compatible with radical reductions in political scale. Williams wanted America to live and let live. If Americans only understood their own history, especially its in-built expansionist dynamic, we might give “the other (largely agrarian) peoples of the world a chance to make their own history by acting on our own responsibility to make our own history.” He concluded:
Imperialism in the name of community … is a vastly more horrible travesty than imperialism in the name of the free marketplace.
Williams attempted to make common cause with anti-war, noninterventionist progressives, conservatives, and classical liberals. But a broad noninterventionist coalition similar to the one that briefly existed in the 1940s never rose again. The closest approximation was perhaps the late ’60s and early ’70s left-right alliance between libertarian and New Left historians as described in the anthology A New History of Leviathan (1972), edited by Ronald Radosh and Rothbard. Eventually, however, zealous Marxist sectarians turned on the “prairie populists.”
The populist, even agrarian, influence within Williams’ thought is significant. New Left historian Gabriel Kolko called the original populist movement “the most truly libertarian social force” of its time; and in Tragedy, Williams described Senator William Borah—one of the heroes in his narrative—as both a “laissez-faire liberal” and committed anti-imperialist. Borah’s “two-front war” on Big Business and federal bureaucracy reflected an older kind of populism that wasn’t especially leftist.
Indeed, there are signs today of political realignments and new coalitions on issues that blur the lines between left and right. It is not unusual these days to see leftist journalist Glenn Greenwald railing against foreign and domestic imperialists on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, much to the chagrin of the establishment left, and the joy of the populist right.
Radosh wrote in his study of key Old Right figures, Prophets on the Right (1975), that “Williams is the first historian to comprehend how traditional conservatives launched an attack on America’s globalist crusaders.” Focused on the hope for real community, Williams expressed sympathy in 1965 for disaffected right-wingers like his father-in-law, a John Bircher, suggesting that growing proletarianization created radicals on the right, and that a properly focused radicalism would address their grievances. Williams, in other words, recognized the now famous “Deplorable” voting bloc 50 years too soon.
If an American country party should ever arise in wrath against empire from the prairies—that place home to the forgotten man—Williams’ ideas might yet receive their due.
above: William Appleman Williams c. 1980 (courtesy of the Trustees of Indiana University)